Via the World: ‘It has been an extraordinary journey so far’
British adventurer Sarah Outen is currently on a bid to loop the planet using human power – rowing, cycling and kayaking from London2London:Via the World. Having completed the first phase in 2011, Sarah is about to embark on a gruelling solo row across the North Pacific. She will be blogging for The Independent all the way back to London. Here, she introduces the journey so far…
It all started a few years ago in 2009 as I sat miles out to sea, alone on my little boat Dippers. It was my first major expedition – rowing solo across the Indian Ocean from Australia to Mauritius – and I realised how much I loved being immersed in the wild, journeying under my own steam. I loved the energy and the dynamics of the ocean, enjoyed the highs, relished the beauty and was thrilled by the fear of it all. I was challenged too, in a way I hadn’t been challenged before and I loved it.
In spite of a few very close calls out on the Indian, where I nearly ended up as fish food, I started plotting an extension to this voyage. I wanted another challenge and another opportunity to trace a wiggling line across the map. It had to start and finish in London, taking in oceans and continents on the way. Besides the adventure, I wanted to make this a shared journey – via blogging along the way, a schools programme and live link ups into classrooms around the world. It was never meant to be an expedition just for me, but rather for everyone – be they joining me on the road or following from afar. I hope that my adventures and storytelling inspire others to embark on or continue on their own journeys – however large or little they might be, metaphorical or physical.
At the end of my Indian Ocean row, I landed in Mauritius 124 days after leaving Australia, relieved to have survived the waves and feeling lucky to have experienced such a magnificent place. Back then I hadn’t realised just how soon I would be underway again, but a combination of things led me to a 2011 start for my London2London: Via the World expedition and on April 1 last year I set off from under Tower Bridge in my kayak Nelson.
I am not quite half way through yet either in time or distance; I expect to be home in autumn 2013. It has been an extraordinary journey so far – full of adventures and surprises, challenges and stories. France was the first stop after London, having kayaked down the Thames and across the Channel. In Calais, I jumped on my bike Hercules and headed East to the far edge of Russia. My pedals took me out of familiar Europe, from Germany to Ukraine and through the unknown eastern edge out into Asia. I crossed the vast plains of Kazakhstan, where roads are mostly pot holes and camels are kept like sheep back home. Next, the seething melting pot that calls itself China kept me busy for two months before I pedalled into the wild of the Russian Far East. My end goal for that leg was Japan’s main island, Honshu, which I reached after some hopscothing by bike and kayak via the remote island of Sakhalin. Two of my team flew out from the UK to support me in this phase – the logistics were mind-boggling.
After ending the first leg in November 2011, I settled down to a winter in Japan. It has been a busy few months, recovering from the first bit, preparing for the next and future legs, as well as visiting schools and volunteering in the tsunami-hit city of Ishinomaki.
The most exciting moment came in Sakahlin, as I paddled down the coast with my support kayaker and camerawoman Justine Curgenven. Having been cautious about the possibility of bears since I first arrived in Russia, I was disappointed to be just days from leaving and having nothing more than bear prints to report. So, this was a very happy paddler indeed which spotted a dark shape on the beach ahead of us. Paddling harder to get closer before he spotted us and moved on, my heart grew louder and my excitement grew, willing him to stay put. What followed was pure beary magic. We sat in our kayaks just off the beach and watched and grinned as the young bear nosed about in the tidelines. He had absolutely no idea we were there, thanks to the wind and the waves. To have a small window into the world of such a beautiful and formidable creature was wonderful and, as I paddled quietly away, I felt like the luckiest person on the planet.
The greatest surprise of the journey came in China. Up to that point I had been surprised plenty of times – marriage proposals in Kazakhstan, three days of police escorts in Russia “to keep you safe” and more snakes than I had seen in my life (including one which I nearly weed on). And then Gao happened. Floppy haired, giggly and very excitable, he had seen my bike outside the petrol station where his brother was filling the car. We talked and he told me that one day he would like to make a bike journey but thought it would be really difficult. I told him that the tough stuff made the good stuff all the richer and that it was just riding a bike, after all – nothing too tricky. He took my website address and we parted. Ten minutes down the road he appeared on the other side, jumped over the central reservation and bounded over to me. He wanted to know if he could come to Beijing with me, on a bike which it soon transpired he didn’t yet own. But he could buy one. And he could learn. And he could help with translation and be my guide and teach me about China and we could buy water and food for the desert… and – . Wow. After trying to dissuade him as politely as possible on grounds of it being a long way to Beijing (4,000km) and that I was on a tight schedule, I soon said yes. I figured that so many people had given me a chance and helped me get to where I was at that moment, and that he deserved that chance, too. If it didn’t work out, fine – I could send him home before the Gobi desert in a few days time and if it did, then great. And off he went, shopping list in hand.
Two days later he arrived at my hotel in Urumqi: cropped hair, top to toe in red lycra and a new bike laden with gear. It was a long, long ride to Beijing but it was brilliant and I am so glad that Gao had the courage to ask that day, and that I had the guts to say yes. Having never cycled more than 10km in his life before, he had a lot to learn. His bike fell apart daily and we found solutions to all the problems, Gao learning everything. There was nothing in his mind that would keep him from Beijing and it was with big grins that we rolled into the capital together after 35 days on the road, clocking nearly 200 km on our final day. We had survived the desert, escaped the wheels of overloaded trucks and trudged on through fierce headwinds and climbed up over hills and mountains – having adventures at every turn. It was an eye-opening experience for both of us.
So, that was a very quick summary of the adventures that have got me to where I am now – about to set off on a 4,500 nautical mile solo row across the North Pacific Ocean, which will take me from Japan to Canada. And while there aren’t many certainties when you’re using only human power to loop the world, one thing is for sure – there will be many more adventures to come.
Sarah will be back here at blogs.independent.co.uk next week to introduce the challenge of the ocean ahead…Adventure, explorer, Via the World
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